“Pandemonium” by Lauren Oliver

Title: Pandemonium
Author: Lauren Oliver
Series: Delirium, #2
ISBN: 9780061978067
Pages: 384
Release date: March 2012
Publisher: HarperCollins
Genre: Dystopian fiction; young adult
Format: Hardcover
Source: Personal collection
Rating: 4 out of 5

Warning: This review contains spoilers for Pandemonium’s prequel, Delirium. For more on that book, check out my enthusiastic review.

Alex is gone. He was gunned down, caught in flames, unable to cross into the Wilds with Lena, and now she’s on her own. Dehydrated, thirsty, and injured, she’s on the edge of defeat when she’s rescued by a small band of those whom she used to fear: Invalids.

As Lena recovers, she quickly learns how to survive in this new world—one where the memory of Alex constantly haunts her. It’s not long before she has bigger things to think about, though; the resisters who have taken in Lena begin plotting their next mission, and Lena wants in.

Each chapter alternates between “then” and “now,” and the juxtaposition emphasizes how Lena evolves and hardens. In a world where love is a disease, hatred is a tempting alternative. In the fraught months after losing Alex, Lena explains:

It will feed you and at the same time turn you to rot. It is hard and deep and angular, a system of blockades. It is everything and total. Hatred is a high tower. In the Wilds, I start to build, and to climb.

She’s no longer a dewy-eyed teen but a lean mean rager against the machine. But as she dives deeper in the cult-like world of the Resistance, she finds a world that is threatening in new and unexpected ways. Her new friends aren’t as friendly as they may seem, and Lena finds herself in deeper and deeper trouble.

Despite losing Alex—in fact, because of it—the idea of a world without love is impossible. But what will Lena do when she’s confronted with a new love interest? And what will happen when her old and new worlds collide?

I loved Delirium—it was one of my favorite books in 2011. I read a review copy of the first book, and had to wait more than a year for the next installment—as my appreciation for Delirium deepened and my hopes for Pandemonium rose perhaps too high. The buzz around its release didn’t help; School Library Journal and Kirkus Reviews both gave Pandemonium a starred review, with Kirkus naming it one of the best books of the year. So, with all of the build-up, maybe it shouldn’t come as a surprise that I wasn’t crazy about the second book.

Part of what appealed to me about Delirium was Oliver’s creativity—the very concept of love as a disease, and how that would affect society. But in the second book, the conceit began wearing thin. Girl cannot live on idea alone. That means Oliver needs to rely on the strength of her characters and plot—and there were some definite misses for me there.

The romance between Lena and the new man, Julian, seems a little contrived. I suppose you need a love interest in a book about the danger and power of love, but it just didn’t work for me.  Their romance is rushed—they are pushed together in prison—and their “love” is a hothouse flower. In fact, Oliver propagates traditional romance-novel ideas of love. Sure, there are no long walks together on the beach in the Wilds, but love isn’t just butterflies in the stomach; it’s a commitment. As in, remember Alex?

As Farrah at I Eat Words points out: “I thought it was quite unnecessary to create a love triangle type of thing. Oliver’s writing is strong, the plot is strong, and both Alex and Lena are strong. Why throw this in? It felt cheap.” Farrah also points out the similarity of the prison sequence to V for Vendetta—a very good point.

Speaking of borrowing a bit too heavily from other books… I was distracted by the many traces of Hunger Games: navigating a love triangle, resisting a dystopian world, finding oneself to be a pawn of the Resistance, even hiding out in the sewer. Thanks, but I already read Mockingjay. Does Oliver think that’s what all readers are looking for in YA, or was it just a horrible coincidence?

Despite these weaknesses, Pandemonium did not lack suspense. The twists themselves are not surprises—it would have been disappointing if they hadn’t happened, since that is the direction clearly set up in the first book. But the ways in which these twists are presented are exciting. Oliver cleverly sets up one surprise within another; you’re so focused on the first development that you’re off-guard with the second, bigger twist—great timing.

As in the first book, Oliver’s prose is fantastic. She avoids clichés in her writing (even if she succumbs to clichéd ideas of love), and her dialogue feels fresh and natural. She includes poetic descriptions and sensory details that heighten the emotion of a given scene, as when Lena finds herself on the run:

On our left, just off the highway, is the city: billboards and dismantled streetlights and ugly apartment buildings with purple-gray faces, bruised complexions turned toward the horizon.

When I finished Delirium, I couldn’t stop thinking about this world and its characters. I pre-ordered Pandemonium about a year in advance, and obviously had high expectations. While I enjoyed the book, it didn’t blow my mind. I’m curious to read Requiem, the final book in the series, but it’s not killing me. It must be hard to write a sequel to such a popular book.

Worth noting: Reading for Sanity points out that this book contains a good bit of profanity, if that sort of things bothers you.

Don’t just take my word for it! Buy Pandemonium from an independent bookstore or Amazon (Kindle version is available).

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